The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Dan Hulbert

New York – In “Parade,” the deeply moving new musical by Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown, which opened Thursday night, there is an enormous living presence that never leaves the stage: the lynching tree.
As designed by Riccardo Hernandez, the tree has a huge swollen trunk and gnarled, leafless limbs that appear to writhe in the shadows, as if at any point they might reach down and seize Leo Frank (Brent Carver) before his appointed time on the rope.

Like a rooted evil invisible to the players, or a wrathful god in Greek tragedy whose victory is preordained, the tree waits.

It fills the high spaces of the Atlanta pencil factory where 13-year-old Mary Phagan (Christy Carlson Romano) is murdered in 1913; it looms over the courtroom where Frank, her Jewish foreman, is railroaded to a conviction on the tainted testimony of a janitor, Jim Conley (Rufus Bonds, Jr.), desperate to save his own hide.

And at the climax of this semi-documented, semi-fictional account of the Frank case, the tree stands alone on a country lane (the actual site was at Roswell and Frey’s Gin roads, Marietta) when the vigilantes slip the noose around Frank’s neck and seal one of America’s most controversial martyrdoms.

We’re not talking “The Sound of Music” here. In fact, Hal Prince’s production of “Parade” is not even much like the other dark works – “Titanic” or Prince’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Evita” – that have expanded the canvas of what mainstream musicals can do, for all of those shows used glamour, ghoulish fun or feel-good heroics to perk up the somber subject matter.

“Parade” stoops to none of those tricks. Whatever criticisms can be leveled at it – and audiences are sure to have many – it is a musical that never loses its nerve.

At its center is the love story of Frank and his wife, Lucille (Carolee Carmello), who at first flees Atlanta to escape the shame of Leo’s arrest but then discovers a strength she never knew she had, persuading Gov. Slaton to commute Leo’s sentence and order a retrial.

The Franks’ love is doubly heartbreaking because they discover it too late to enjoy it. Leo’s only triumph in suffering – again, in the tradition of the Greeks – is self-knowledge.

“Parade,” then, may be the saddest musical ever, but it is no more “depressing” than a finely composed funeral Mass. Its sadness is of the elegiac kind that awakens, not burdens, the heart.

But the show is not without flaws, especially in slow-to-ignite Act 1. One wonders whether Hernandez has ever seen the real Georgia, since the “red hills” he so literally depicts on the backdrop look as sun-scorched as Southern California’s.

Composer-lyricist Brown makes an impressive Broadway debut with some achingly beautiful songs – “Old Red Hills of Home,” a stirring anthem of Southern pride; and “You Don’t Know This Man,” Lucille’s defiant defense of her husband.

But he still leaves us a bit hungry for melodic hooks, and his attempts at an early 1900s musical styles don’t even sound as authentic as those of “Ragtime.”

Then there’s the issue of stereotypes, which is bound to get different responses depending on the Southerner who sees the show.

Uhry, who tells the story masterfully, with flashes of bitter humor and ironic foreshadowing, and Prince (“The Phantom of the Opera”), who brings his familiar flair for stage pictures, clearly wrestle with the problem of cliches.

Their Frank is not a perfect martyr but an arrogant Atlanta newcomer who yearns for the “real people” of his Brooklyn youth. Another bold choice is to begin the evening with a noble young Rebel soldier going off to war – then magically transform him into a bitter, grizzled, one-legged veteran in the Confederate Memorial Day Parade (hence the show’s title) 35 years later.

In this single brilliant stroke, Uhry and Prince provide a sympathetic insight into the men who shouted for the head of the Yankee foreman who paid their children pennies an hour.

Thus Uhry shifts the blame off the common man and onto Tom Watson, the publisher of “The Jeffersonian,” who incites him with such verbatim phrases as “perverted sodomite Jew.” Uhry also includes a stereotypically clownish defense lawyer, a sort of Big Daddy without the brains.

His least credible characters are lesser villains: prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, who exploits the Frank case with naked political ambition; and Britt Craig, reporter for the now-defunct Atlanta Georgian, a generic figure of journalistic sleaze who seems to arise from a 1990s peeve rather than a sense of deep historical outrage.

None of these glitches derails the story for long. It’s simply too riveting in its authentic horrors and too intelligently told. Uhry’s book has an uncanny ability to weave in and out of characters’ heads, making fantasy coexist with reality; even the choreography, by Patricia Birch, enhances this effect.

In the evening’s most daring sequence, as factory girls give coached testimony about Frank’s alleged lasciviousness, the repressed foreman dances with them with a mad, suggestive abandon, even leaping up to strut across courtroom desks.

But the evening’s transcendent moment has nothing to do with tragedy – it’s about fleeting, quiet joy, as Leo and Lucille enjoy their long-awaited “picnic” on the floor of his cell.

In Brown’s most soaring notes and inspired lyrics (fully realized by the voices of the superb Carver and Carmello), the Franks come to terms with “All the Wasted Time” that they neglected to enjoy each other, just hours before the vigilantes seize him.

Back on Peachtree Street, the Rebel flags are again unfurled and the parade again floats by in ghostly slow motion. A sadder but stronger Lucille goes on alone.